Arts & Culture

‘The Marriage Plot’: refraction of the real?

By
Features Editor
Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Jeffrey Eugenides ’83 did not intend to set his latest bestseller “The Marriage Plot” at Brown.

“But I decided that no matter what I did, people would probably think it was Brown anyway, so I just decided to go for it,” Eugenides said. Besides, he added, “Brown really hadn’t had that many novels. … I decided I would try to rectify that.”

While his characters navigate a 1980s collegiate love triangle, they often recognize their own experiences in works of literature. This makes for eerie reading for the current Brown student as characters walk down Benefit Street, meet up in the Blue Room and party at Hawaiian Night at Sigma Chi. But perhaps even more provocative are the familiar themes of depression, aimlessness and gender relations — albeit seen through the lens of the early 1980s.

Eugenide’s two previous novels, “The Virgin Suicides” and “Middlesex,” take place in his hometown of Detroit. While he manages to squeeze in a few pages of Motor City, he mostly explores new terrain in “The Marriage Plot.”

Though the first third of the book is set in Providence, the plot then shifts to characters’ post-grad travels to Cape Cod, Paris and India — as well as their intellectual voyages in understanding literature, theory and themselves.

But even when the action steers away from College Hill, “The Marriage Plot” is framed by its protagonists’ memories and beliefs formed at Brown.

 

Semiotic schism

The novel was not originally set at a college. Eugenides wrote a couple hundred pages of a manuscript centered around a Midwestern family party, but became intrigued by Madeleine, a party attendee with romantic complications in the story. About seven years ago, he scrapped the original book to focus on Madeleine and her two romantic interests, Mitchell and Leonard.

The book, released Oct. 11, is dedicated to Eugenides’ college roommates — “Stevie and Moo Moo” — with whom he lived in an apartment on Bowen Street, in the same building as Mitchell does. But that building, and another one on Hope Street in which he lived, no longer exist, Eugenides said.

When Eugenides attended his nephew’s Commencement ceremony several years ago, he said he was “double-checking all (his) graduation facts.”

He borrowed not only the physical background of 1980s College Hill, but its academic backdrop as well.

Madeleine undergoes a revelation when she first discovers semiotics, mirroring Eugenide’s experience and the general academic climate in the late 1970s when the University’s semiotics program was in its infancy. At the time, French semiotics theory was gaining popularity, creating “a schism in the English department,” recalled Eugenides.

Madeleine notes this shift in the novel — “by senior year she could no longer ignore the contrast between the hard-up, blinky people in her Beowulf seminar and the hipsters down the hall reading Maurice Blanchot.”

There are no characters or specific events taken from his time at Brown, Eugenides said. John Hawkes, former professor of English and his most influential teacher in college, did not even make it into the story.

Yet Madeleine’s studies seem to match Eugenides’ collegiate career, which “shuttled back and forth between a more traditional English curriculum and the new semiotics practice and theory,” he said. While “Middlesex” was inspired by the writings of Michel Foucault, “The Marriage Plot” draws from that of Roland Barthes, Eugenides said.

Madeleine obsesses over Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse” — though she is initially not sure how to pronounce the author’s name until the most pretentious student in her class says it out loud.

 

Girls to women

Though Madeleine is enamored with the marriage plots of Victorian novels, she also holds modern sensibilities. This sets her apart from her mom, a traditional housewife who naively critiques Madeleine’s shoulder pads as too “mannish.” Mitchell later captures feminist anger en vogue with the exaggerated observation, perhaps of the Sciences Library: “College feminists made fun of skyscrapers, saying they were phallic symbols.”

Mitchell considers girls at one point, but interrupts himself with a correction — “excusez-moi: women.” Eugenides said this line grew directly out of his Brown experience, when using the word girl instead of woman would get you in trouble. Feminism was a “hotter topic” back then, he said.

“Can you say girl at Brown?” Eugenides asked in an interview, wondering if female students still police such language. Maybe female students today do not need to, Eugenides suggested. “The women I knew would stand against saying girl because they weren’t sure that they were going to have the power that they wanted,” he said. The situation might be different for women today, as “certain battles have been won,” he said.

“A lot of the women I knew at Brown would be very against anything that would make them attractive or turn them into an object,” he added, something he said he does not see today.

 

You may ask yourself

Eugenides contrasts not only decades, but also the theater-literary social scene he experienced at Brown with that of the writing students he currently teaches at Princeton.

He said he finds his Princeton students to be generally less “colorful” and more “sober-minded and mature” than the college peers he remembers. “The benefit is they don’t seem as if they’re going to have some kind of nervous breakdown,” he noted, a fate that befalls one of the characters in his novel.

“But I can’t tell if that’s a difference between Princeton or Brown or between 2011 and 1980. You don’t have New Wave and punk rock right now, and maybe it affects people’s style,” he said.

Critics often remark on the novel’s style, and it is perhaps appropriate that a book about the study of semiotics includes so many signifiers of taste. Students listen to The Talking Heads and Patti Smith, and they read Italo Calvino.

While 80s music tastes remain popular today, there are clear differences between Brown in the novel and the campus in 2011. “The Marriage Plot” depicts Providence as “a corrupt town, crime-ridden and mob-controlled” with “a sketchy downtown.” Course titles contain three numbers. All the girls use diaphragms.

Indeed, Eugenides describes one character’s sexual adventures with the hyperbolic statement: “A representative image of Leonard’s freshman year would be of a guy lifting his head from an act of cunnilingus long enough to take a bong hit and give a correct answer in class.” According to a recent Herald poll, only 1 percent of students reported having six or more partners this semester.

Some things remain the same. Students constantly drink coffee. Alcohol fuels unexpected sexual adventure. Leonard eats a Buddy Cianci sandwich at Geoff’s (inexplicably titled Mutt and Geoff’s — Eugenides said no one has called him out on any inaccuracies yet). Graduation sparks existential crisis.

Themes of aimlessness and post-grad uncertainty have been reworked many times before. In W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel “The Razor’s Edge,” the young Larry Darrell rejects conventional employment and  “loafs around” first by traveling to Paris, then to India for spiritual and religious adventure, as one of protagonists, Mitchell, does. Mitchell’s travel partner is also named Larry.

“There were some books that reached through the noise of life to grab you by the collar and speak only of the truest things,” Mitchell reflects at one point.

That is a high standard to hold any book up to, and it’s not clear “The Marriage Plot” as a work of literature achieves it. But its characters’ passion for finding wisdom in the written word certainly reminds you that it is possible.